In my other life — where I go by my full name — I write everything from briefs and legal memoranda to law-related blog posts, consumer education materials, and articles. Normally, the topics are varied, but lately, I’ve been writing many pieces about the same narrow topic without any new information or even a new angle to share. These articles are part of a public education effort, one that requires publication in multiple avenues within a relatively short period of time. Each successive article is harder to write than the last, as I struggle to impart the same old information in an original way. More than once, I’ve stopped to wonder why I am being so careful when, clearly, ripping off myself isn’t a crime.
In a previous post, Who’s the Victim of Self-Plagiarism?, I noted that it’s hard to see what’s wrong about lifting content from my own previously published work. Unlike typical plagiarism, which usually consists of using or paraphrasing too closely someone else’s words, self-plagiarism appears to have no obvious victim. It does not deceive readers about my expertise, nor does it steal credit that belongs to another person.
However, the fact that I signed a contract with a publisher — one that required original content and barred multiple submissions of the same content — changes the equation. As I’ve said before, when an external publisher is involved:
What may seem like “stealing” content from [ourselves] — which doesn’t sound so bad — could really be stealing from someone else ([the] publisher of the previous work) and often requires lying by omission to others (the new publisher or a hiring committee) about the originality of those words and ideas.
So, what’s a conscientious, risk-averse writer to do when she has to draft yet another piece on the same topic for a different outlet? Well, when I am that writer, I suffer from writer’s block as I stare at the perfectly-worded (if I do say so myself!), previously-published articles and blog posts. Then, I try to change the structure of the content and, if possible, come up with appropriate synonyms.
Obviously, I cannot change technical terms, like “plaintiff” and “defendant,” but other words are interchangeable without altering the meaning. “Employee” becomes “worker,” but, because the thesaurus is not always a friend, the list of appropriate substitutes is slim (clearly, “toiler” or “serf” wouldn’t work). Unfortunately, though, after too many articles on the same topic within a short timeframe, the writing becomes stilted. It just doesn’t sound like me anymore.
*Image Above: I came up with “auto-bootlegging” as a bad synonym for “self-plagiarism” (self → auto; plagiarism → piracy → bootlegging) without knowing that “auto-bootlegging” is an actual word — or at least very close to one — from the 1940s and 1950s.
As I. Willis Russell explained in the December 1955 issue of American Speech (Vol. 30, No. 4, pp. 283-288), “bootlegging” occurs when “an overstocked new-car dealer sells his surplus stock at a little more than cost to a used-car dealer. The latter takes the cars into another territory and sells them at less than list price.” Crazy English.